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When Did Man First Domesticate Dogs?

New research explores how man managed to domesticate dogs.

Key Points:

  • Wolves and humans were early competitors that both hunted in packs for large prey, shared ecological niches, and could kill each other.
  • Debate exists over the exact origin of domesticated dogs, but research suggests that it could have happened between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago.
  • Man may have domesticated incipient dogs by providing them with leftover lean meat during the long Ice Age winters.

Dogs have been man’s best friend from the beginning. It’s very possible, however, that the dog is a better friend to man than the converse. For instance, dogs likely helped modern man outcompete and thus outlive Neanderthals. Furthermore, dog ownership is linked to improved psychological and physical health, according to the CDC.

In light of the special relationship with our four-legged friends, it’s interesting to explore when we first domesticated dogs, and why this relationship came about.

The first animal domesticated by man

Most modern dog breeds share European ancestry, and Europe is a crucially important geographic domain for the evolution of dogs. The oldest domestic-dog remains were discovered in Europe, with a 14,700 year-old jaw bone uncovered in Germany. (Older remains found in Siberia and the Middle East are more controversial in provenance.)

Dmitry Pichugin/123RF
Source: Dmitry Pichugin/123RF

To make things a bit more nebulous, ancient mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) indicates a European origin of dog domestication, while mitochondrial and genomic data from modern dogs indicate East Asian, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian origins.

In a study published in Nature Communications, Krishna R. Veeramah and co-authors wrote, ”[O]ur results are consistent with a scenario where modern European dogs emerged from a structured Neolithic population. Furthermore, we detect an additional ancestry component in the End Neolithic sample, consistent with admixture from a population of dogs located further east that may have migrated concomitant with steppe people associated with Late Neolithic and Early Bronze age cultures, such as the Yamnaya and Corded Ware culture.” Of note, the Neolithic period in Central Europe occurred between 7,500 and 4,000 BP (Before Present).

Based on paleogenomic analysis, the investigators concluded that Eastern and Western dogs diverged between 17,000 and 24,000 years ago, representing a single origin for domestication, which existed between about 20,000 and 40,000 years ago.

Dogs are the first animals to be domesticated by humans, and the only one domesticated by our mobile hunter-gatherer forbears. Intriguingly, wolves and humans competed for resources as pack hunters of large prey and were capable of killing one another. The question therefore arises as to how humans—who had a partially overlapping ecological niche with wolves—were able to turn them to the docile dog we know and love today.

The role of food in dog domestication

In a recent article published in Scientific Reports, Maria Lahtinen and co-authors hypothesized that humans domesticated this once-competitive species based on food/resource partitioning: “Our calculations show that during harsh winters, when game is lean and devoid of fat, Late Pleistocene hunters-gatherers in Eurasia would have a surplus of animal-derived protein that could have been shared with incipient dogs,” they wrote.

“Our partitioning theory explains how competition may have been ameliorated during the initial phase of dog domestication. Following this initial period, incipient dogs would have become docile, being utilized in a multitude of ways such as hunting companions, beasts of burden, and guards as well as going through many similar evolutionary changes as humans,” they concluded.

In other words, humans may have tamed wolves and made them dogs with excess lean meat provided during the harsh Ice Age winters. (Apparently, like man, the way to a dog’s heart is through the stomach.) After all, humans can only eat so much lean meat due to the liver’s finite ability to metabolize the stuff, whereas wolves/dogs could subsist solely on this lean meat for months on end. This early exchange could be one reason why dogs and man get along so well today.

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